It was a usual Friday afternoon in January when I walked into my favourite ichinen sei class, expecting to see their smiling faces. Instead I was met with thirty white-masked faces looking back at me. I looked at my teacher and realised that I was the only one in the room without a mask. To stop feeling like I was in a horror movie, I ran back to the staff room and grabbed a mask. This was the start of flu season.
Influenza hit my schools, and the whole of Fukui prefecture with vengeance. In my school, infected students’ names were marked in red ink on the attendance whiteboard, and every break the teachers would gather round it and discuss the worsening situation. In the first week there were only five known infected students, but teachers were already taking precautions like our school could be the epicentre of a global epidemic! In fact we were part of the annual influenza season that sweeps the northern hemisphere in the coldest months of the year.
In Japan, preventing the spread of flu is taken very seriously. When there were over three infected students in one class, an emergency teachers’ meeting was held and we were told that three whole ichinen sei classes would be banned from school for the three days. At my visiting school, all 32 students, were told not to come to school for a week to prevent the spread of flu! When I asked if the students were happy about having ‘flu days’, they told me they’d been given so much homework that they’d have to work as hard as they did at school to finish it! Their teachers also had to phone them each day to check that they were doing the work set and not just watching anime all day. Most students were wise enough to get on with their homework, or lie to say they were doing it, except one student who told his teacher he’d just woken up, at 11am!
Apart from sending students home, there are other precautions schools take to stop a flu epidemic. Firstly, all students and teachers have to wear masks. These white, cotton masks are usually worn when someone has a cold, yet during flu season the also act as a vise against other people’s germs. In England these masks are worn in health-care settings, but in Japan it’s common to see people wearing them in schools, businesses and public places. Even very young children wear them! In a strange way, it’s the Japanese equivalent of the burka, as girls who have long fringes, about 90% of junior high school girls, all that shows of their face is their eyes!
For the first few days when I wore a mask, I felt like I had a nappy on my face. It is horrible, especially if you are wearing glasses and every time you breathe out deeply your glasses steam up! Secondly, when you speak the mask moves up-and-down and is totally annoying. Thirdly, how am I meant to teach pronunciation when I have a mask covering my mouth? (I actually took it off at moments like those and stood far enough back from students not to be contaminated or contaminate them.) And then there’s the question of what to do when you sneeze! Surely this is the reason for wearing them, to catch the explosive sneeze, but I don’t want my own germs against my face for the rest of the day! So I always have a tissue at the ready to pull down the mask, sneeze into a tissue, dispose of it, wash my hands and then pull up the mask again. What a hassle, just for a small ‘Ah chuu’! In the teachers’ room, I copied other teachers in wearing the mask under my chin, but then it just feels like an ill-fitting nappy. There’s no comfortable solution. Yet I did like wearing it on the walk to and from school as it prevented my nose from freezing. That was the only plus-point. That, and I didn’t catch the flu!
In Japan, it’s not just schools that take influenza serious, but the government too. “The IDSC (Infectious Disease Surveillance Center) said that it expects infections to continue to increase and has called on the public to wash their hands regularly, to gargle when arriving home and to receive vaccination shots in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.” To gargle when getting home! I’ve never heard that one before! Yet many teachers at school did this in the sink where they brush their teeth after lunch. Even more strange noises to put up with…
Two of the forty teachers in my main school caught the flu. When I asked them how it was, it didn’t seem particularly serious and they got over the fever in two days, but they are healthy adults. The reason schools take an influenza outbreak so seriously is because a student could pass it on to vulnerable family members. In Fukui prefecture there is a high percentage of three-generations in a family living together, so students have to be careful not to pass it on to their elderly grandparents or younger brothers and sisters. I saw the effects of this in my host family where three out of five members caught the flu and are still suffering from colds and coughs a month later.
Yet at my school flu season went as quickly as it came. About two weeks after mask-wearing became compulsory, I walked into school to see smiling faces again. I’d almost forgotten what people looked like without the masks! I myself I had just got used to wearing a mask, well that’s what I thought. A genki special needs girl found it hilarious when she saw me wearing a mask and couldn’t stop laughing! Maybe it’s something to do with foreigners having long noses that make us look comical wearing a mask! After that, I was happy to take it off.